A week after a Seattle-based trawler dragging nets through the Gulf of Alaska to scoop up cod hauled up a huge catch of halibut to lead the offshore fleet in a 104-metric-ton weekly total of what is called halibut "by-catch," the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the big boats that fish largely unseen off the Alaska's coast cut back.
The halibut by-catch -- all of which is dumped back into the sea, much of it dead -- was down almost 5 percent the last week of the month, according to NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle.
"Between Sept. 18 and Sept. 24, 104 metric tons or 229,278 pounds of halibut was caught incidentally in all trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska,'' she said in an email. The following week saw 99 metric tons caught in the same fishery. NOAA measures tonnage using a metric ton, which is 2,200 pounds, compared to the standard American ton of 2,000 pounds.
By-catch in the trawl fisheries has become an issue because of the dispute raging between long line commercial halibut fishermen and Alaska charter boat operators.
NOAA, at the behest of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, earlier this year proposed a crackdown on the charter fleet even though recreational anglers aboard charters catch fewer halibut than are caught and thrown away in the trawl fisheries and a small fraction -- about 10 percent -- of the number caught in the commercial long line fisheries.
When news got out that the NOAA plan would force a one-fish bag limit on anglers fishing aboard charters in such popular ports as Homer, Seward and Valdez next year, a firestorm of controversy arose. NOAA subsequently refused to rubber stamp the council plan, a rare move. Instead it sent it back, saying significant questions had been raised and suggesting, among other things, that the Council consider the economic impact of a one-fish limit.
Charter operators have insisted that a one-fish limit would put many of them out of business and ripple through the Alaska tourism industry. Imposition of a one-fish limit appears to have stalled for at least a year while the council reconsiders. But concern surrounding the health of Gulf of Alaska halibut stocks has once again pushed by-catch into the spotlight.
An anonymous blogger has focused on the issue for some time now. Tholepin, as the blog is called, Friday headlined: "Getting Wasted: The Tragedy Continues" and claimed the "Miss Leona," a cod trawler based out of Bellingham, Wash., in the first week of October topped the 43-percent halibut haul of the Seattle-based trawler "Alaska Beauty" back in September. The Leona's catch, Tholepin said, citing NOAA data, was 48 percent halibut.
"Tholepin is not a credible source," Speegle claimed in an email to Dispatch, although the website's figures appear to nearly duplicate those of NOAA. Speegle, however, noted in a follow-up email exchange that the blog claimed "228,800 pounds of halibut wasted by draggers" in the week ending Sept. 24 when the actual total was 229,278 pounds -- a difference of 478 pounds or about 0.2 percent. She did note the numbers are a bit of a moving target.
One significant fact, however, does remain unchanged -- trawlers catch and kill a lot of halibut. Their 5 million pound limit exceeds the total charter halibut catch for all of Alaska last year. And, as The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, an organization dedicated "to protecting the health of Alaska’s oceans and sustaining coastal communities' working waterfronts," notes: "Only dead halibut count towards the cap, and a formula which assigns a mortality rate to each gear type and target fishery is used to determine how many halibut caught as by catch count towards the cap each year."
Some, including Tholepin, have suggested the formula could significantly undercount how many halibut are killed. And the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a treaty organization that manages Pacific halibut for the U.S. and Canada, concedes it is uncomfortable with the accuracy of by-catch numbers. It’s dispatched what it calls a halibut by catch project team "to gain a better understanding of the amounts and potential impacts of halibut by catch mortality.''
Trawlers counter that they aren't the only ones with by-catch problems. There are significant amounts of by-catch in long line fisheries for cod and sablefish, and a significant number of halibut caught and released in those fisheries die, too.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com